Low-Priced Models Deliver Range of Features

SAN FRANCISCO (08/29/2000) - Why would you even consider a one-megapixel camera in this era of two- and three-megapixel powerhouses? Because, as with so many things, more is not necessarily better. Just because a camera has higher resolution doesn't mean it takes better pictures; you really need all that extra resolution only if you want to print pictures larger than 5 by 7 inches or blow up part of an image. Granted, today's state-of-the-art 3.3-megapixel cameras offer improved image processing and new features, but most camera manufacturers have been diligent about migrating such features down to their one-megapixel models.

For this roundup, we looked at five cameras: Olympus America Inc.'s D-460 Zoom and D-360L, Kodak Co.'s DC240 Zoom and DC215 Zoom, and Fuji Ltd.'s FinePix 1400 Zoom. We found quite a lot of variation in both image quality and features, but we also found that it's possible to get a great balance of image quality and features in a very affordable package.

Image Quality Counts

A camera is only as good as its output, and several of the cameras we looked at produce high-quality prints. For overall image quality, it's hard to choose between Olympus's D-460 Zoom and Fuji's FinePix 1400 Zoom; both cameras deliver images with excellent detail and good color reproduction. The FinePix tends to produce images that are a tad brighter and have slightly more-accurate color, however, while the D-460's images generally have slightly better contrast. The D-460's images are consistently a bit dull when compared with the FinePix's, though you can easily correct this with a few simple contrast adjustments in an image-editing application. And the D-460's images have markedly better saturation and tone than those produced by its predecessor, the D-450.

The Kodak DC240 Zoom isn't quite up to the standards set by Olympus and Fuji, producing images that have good detail but frequently look washed out. It appears that Kodak has sacrificed image highlights in an effort to improve shadow detail, resulting in bright colors that frequently have a yellowish green cast. The camera's color accuracy is also a little off. Kodak's DC215 Zoom fared far worse: in addition to turning out images that were too soft, it consistently produced inaccurate, washed-out color.

Similar to the DC215 in size and price is the Olympus D-360L, an upgrade from Olympus's popular D-340. Although it's roughly the same size and price as the DC215, it produces much better images -- they sometimes look a little washed out, but they have good color accuracy and contrast.

Curiously, the D-360L fared the best in our flash tests, with the DC240 not far behind. The D-360L and FinePix also did well, though all the cameras we looked at were a little disappointing: with their weak flashes, they often produced images that were too dark. And because all these cameras are small, their flashes are placed close enough to the lenses that red-eye is a common concern.

Look and Feel

Of course, image quality is irrelevant if you don't have the features you need to take good pictures. Olympus is way out in front in this department. For example, the D-460 packs a 3x optical zoom, a spot meter, manual white balance, three ISO choices, exposure compensation, and a big memory buffer for high-speed shooting. The D-460 also includes an 8MB SmartMedia card. Unfortunately, the camera offers only serial connectivity; if you're using a USB Mac, you won't be able to connect the camera directly toyour computer.

Olympus's D-360L offers roughly the same features as the D-460, but it has a fixed-focus lens rather than a 3' zoom. The camera produces very good results, though the images sometimes appear washed-out.

Although the FinePix offers slightly better image quality, it does not deliver the speedy performance of the D-460. In addition, the lack of an LCD status display -- not to be confused with the 1.8-inch LCD viewfinder -- makes shooting more complicated. You have to turn on the LCD viewfinder to read any of the camera's settings, and changing a setting usually requires delving into the camera's menu system. The camera does have a USB connection, but it lacks a spot meter and adjustable ISOs.

The largest, heaviest camera we tested, Kodak's DC240 packs some nice features -- such as manual white balance, manual sharpness control, two metering modes, exposure compensation, and a number of special effects -- and includes Mac and Windows serial cables, a USB cable, and rechargeable batteries. Although the Kodak DC215 offers an assortment of accessories, the camera is uncomfortable to use, and it offers poor feedback when you're shooting. Its image quality is by far the worst in the lot -- images were soft and underexposed, with flat, inaccurate color.

Macworld's Buying Advice

Both the Olympus D-460 Zoom and the Fuji FinePix 1400 Zoom are proof that you don't need a lot of pixels to take excellent pictures. For the best balance of features, price, and image quality, choose the Olympus D-460 Zoom. If simple snapshots are all you're after, and you don't need a zoom lens, check out the Olympus D-360L -- it offers almost all the features of the D-460 for about US$100 less.

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